|With Alpha Centauri only appearing on a screen, the “looking like a giant penis” needs of this episode had to be filled elsewhere.|
It’s June 10th, 2017. Despacito? Despacito. Ariana Grande makes it up to number two, while Niall Horan, French Montana, and Ed Sheeran also chart, with the latter having his last week in the top ten following the great Sheeraning. In news, Montenegro joins NATO, a Saudi Arabian-led blockade of Qatar begins, and James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the big news is the general election, which ends with a hung parliament after unexpectedly large gains for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, resulting in Theresa May forming a confidence and supply agreement with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party that gives her an incredibly narrow majority that would require near unanimous support from within her own party for any major legislation such as, say, a Brexit agreement.
Speaking of Brexit, on television we have Empress of Mars. This is a story that, by all rights, should be easy to dislike. It’s Gatiss doing pure and unadulterated fanwank, without any of the wider concerns that allowed things like The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End or Hell Bent to justify their excesses. Its very existence is not a sign of a healthy program. On a very basic level, functional TV programs do not resolve storylines in ways that depend on the audience recognizing the forty-three year old supporting character who’s making a cameo for the final scenes to make any sense. This absolutely and unequivocally should be a hot, steaming mess. So why is it so utterly delightful?
Part of it is that Empress of Mars provides the natural culmination for the project we’ve been identifying as “late Gatiss.” Much of Gatiss’s late style has emerged from what seems like a greater sense of comfort with his own approach. His early work often seemed to struggle at fitting what he does to the strictures of the modern series, particularly the themes and approaches established by Russell T Davies, which are ultimately where The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, and Night Terrors all trip up. But starting with his Series Seven contributions, Gatiss seems to have resolved to stop trying to tailor what he does to larger expectations of what modern Doctor Who is like and to instead just write Gatiss episodes. The results have been consistently charming and, with Robot of Sherwood and Sleep No More, have done non-trivial amounts to expand the concept of what a Gatiss episode can be. But with Empress of Mars, this hard-earned “let Gatiss be Gatiss” ethos is taken to its endpoint and we finally get to appreciate how good an idea it was in the first place.
It’s notable that Gatiss required some work to get to that point with the episode. His first instinct, correctly squashed, was to try to pen a sequel to Sleep No More given that story’s ambiguity-laden resolution. It is unsurprising that this did not quite work, as the downer ending was central to that story and revisiting it could only diminish the idea. In any case, aware that he was likely to find himself effectively departing with Moffat, or at the very least that he was not going to have the same “trusted lieutenant” status under Chibnall, Gatiss decided to go for the more self-indulgent option, which for him meant Ice Warriors. His first idea, nicknamed Brexit of Peladon, was at once clearly brilliant and clearly not workable in 45 minutes that would have to reintroduce the basic idea of Peladon in order to deliver the payoff. And so he eventually settled on “Victorians on Mars wake up the Ice Warrior queen.”
It’s worth remarking on the kind of elegant simplicity of this premise. The Victorians in space angle has decent enough precedent between H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (previously adapted to TV by Gatiss, who also starred) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series, which, while it starred an American Civil War veteran, is still clearly in the general realm of iconography. More to the point, the rise of steampunk as a subgenre made the Victorian astronaut angle positively savvy. Combining this with Doctor Who’s pre-existing race of morally variable Martian lizard people to do a story in which the British Empire invades Mars is smart, subtle, and yet still fundamentally lends itself to a goofy romp.
Which, make no mistake, is absolutely what Empress of Mars is. Way back in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood essay I suggested that a story that gave in and tried the commonly offered “go back and do it like the classic series would” suggestion was inevitable and had to be attempted just so that it could fail and dissuade people from doing it. But with Empress of Mars, Gatiss offers the refutation of this line of thought. More than any story since, actually, The Unquiet Dead, Empress of Mars is attempting to present 1970s Doctor Who with the bare minimum of updates required for transmission in the twenty-first century. Where The Unquiet Dead was an ostentatious Hinchcliffe homage, however, Empress of Mars is something altogether weirder: a remake of Pertwee’s space-based stories.
These are a genuinely odd legacy to embrace, because they exist right on the threshold of something that’s actually meaningful to talk about. Out of Pertwee’s twenty-four stories, only eight—Colony in Space, The Curse of Peladon, The Mutants, Carnival of Monsters, Frontier in Space, Planet of the Daleks, Death to the Daleks, and The Monster of Peladon—are actually straightforward “the TARDIS lands somewhere and a thing happens” stories. Of these, two are Terry Nation stories and so belong to their own unfortunately timeless period, while a third is simply a remake of another one. This leaves two Malcolm Hulke stories, a Baker and Martin carnival, a Robert Holmes story that spends half its time on pseudo-Earth (Jo notably doesn’t emerge from the Miniscope at all until the final scenes), and The Curse of Peladon, the story that Empress of Mars most directly references. There’s enough here to have a sense of tone and style, especially when you add back things like The Time Monster, The Three Doctors, and Planet of the Spiders that have substantial off-world segments. (Or at least a bit in Atlantis.) But there’s nowhere near enough for it to feel like one of the defining anchors of what Doctor Who is, especially when they’re abutted with the far more straightforwardly distinctive and era-defining UNIT stories.
And yet it’s an era I am inordinately fond of. The five stories that serve as the core texts are among my favorites of the era, and provide a clear anchor for the weirder, more emphatically glam Pertwee era that is the one I actually love as opposed to the show about lovable military goofballs defending the Earth that fandom (including, let’s be honest, Gatiss) seems to think the era is actually best represented by. And so as a thing from the past to faithfully recapture it’s at once compelling and unexpected.
It’s also, notably, well-suited to the format. The Pertwee era was still rooted in the six-parter—half of its stories were six-parters. Indeed, it was the last real pomp of the structure—Tom Baker had five more plus Shada, and Colin Baker had The Two Doctors, but the format was de-emphasized after Pertwee. But up until Pertwee, six parters and longer had been the norm for the series. This was largely a factor of budgets and a desire to get six weeks of television out of a given set of costumes and sets, but it was also a structure that was suited to the conceptual explorations of space of the Hartnell era. It started to flag in the Troughton era, especially during Season Five’s downright harrowing parade of six-part bases under siege, but it’s in the Pertwee era that the stories largely refocused on a sense of spectacle. It isn’t that there weren’t interesting ideas, but the stories became less about exploring those ideas than about mining them for excuses to use CSO. And thus six-parts was, more often than not, excruciatingly baggy.
But the forty-five minute structure has the opposite problem, which has proven to be one of the biggest problems facing Series Ten. In an era where it seems like Doctor Who needs to pivot towards exploring ideas, its format is poorly suited to it. And while Gatiss isn’t addressing that challenge at all, he’s at least being extremely savvy in going back to a spectacle-heavy format that was too often decompressed and reviving it in a spectacle-friendly structure that thrives on acceleration.
The result is a campy romp through a bunch of cave sets in which villains rant gloriously, secondary characters slot cleanly into the sympathetic ones and the bad ones, and everything advances with a jaunty clip. The story is simple and stripped down to its set pieces, with clear shifts in the balance of power that move the plot along, but that leave enough space for moments to feel like they can breathe. It’s all competently done fun, and while Gatiss’s politics are far from the best on the series (the anecdote of him having to be coaxed into accepting a black soldier because realism is deeply cringeworthy, and, though it’s beyond the scope of this episode, his transphobia is almost as bad as Roberts’s) this ends up being pretty resolutely anti-empire in a deeply satisfying way. And the fact that it ends with the Ice Warriors making their initial steps towards a longstanding EU analogue is, while obscure to anyone who hasn’t watched The Curse of Peladon, a good call, especially in the context of post-Brexit Doctor Who’s conspicuous general case cowardice in tackling the matter.
So what are we to make of Gatiss in light of this? He remains modern Doctor Who’s great classicist—a writer who, in all of his stories, is fundamentally concerned with things Doctor Who used to do and how to get it to do them again. The limitations of this are searingly obvious: Gatiss is utterly and fundamentally incapable of moving Doctor Who forward. And this is on top of some of his other weaknesses such as a comparatively flaccid grasp of character. But with all the unsettling possibilities of him as a future showrunner finally removed, we can finally appreciate him as he turns out to have always been: a supporting player.
It is in this context that his virtues most obviously announce themselves. He is not merely a classicist, but a delightfully odd classicist—one whose memory of the program is accurate but idiosyncratic in its focuses. The result is that even when he goes for the most bog standard traditionalism imaginable, there’s a bracing freshness to it. This is perhaps most clear in his previous Ice Warriors story, where he took the most routinely resurrected trad subgenre, the base under siege, and turned it inside out in a way that’s intensely related to the genre’s original purpose, setting it in the literal Cold War and having it be the Russians whose base is under siege. But this spark is consistent, especially in his post-Series 6 work. And the truth is that Doctor Who would be lesser without someone who could do this. Someone who can cogently speak to the past and show new perspectives on it is absolutely a virtue for the show, whether or not it results in the most exciting episodes of the year. By 2017 it’d been a long time since the “ugh the Gatiss episode” grimace that fandom greeted his every script with was remotely warranted, not because his output since then had always been good, but because it had at least always been interesting.
For proof just look at Peter Capaldi who, one week after the most phoned in performance of his tenure, appears to be having the time of his life with a script that doesn’t actually give him much interesting to do, but that gives him a truly charming landscape against which to do it. Perhaps this requires a Doctor Who fan in the lead—certainly it’s true that Pearl Mackie isn’t having anywhere near as much fun (a more or less straight-up reversal of last week then). But with this combination—a show run by middle aged Scottish fans with genuine ambition—Gatiss’s style is a perfect complimenting note. And so, improbably given the lows his reputation has hit, including, I’ll freely admit, in this project, he exits our story on a high. He’s not an era-defining titan, but he was never going to be. But he is a major secondary figure—one of those writers like Hulke, Baker and Martin, or David Fisher who add much of the texture to eras that are characterized at large by other figures. Or, to make the more interesting comparison, like Moffat; just as he provided a vital complementary voice in all of Russell T Davies’s seasons, so did Gatiss ultimately do so for Moffat’s. He’s not why this was a golden era. But all the same, a little bit of the shine is clearly his.